Although thermal relaxation times of cutaneous port-wine stain microvessels have been calculated and used to formulate laser selective photothermolysis, they have never been measured. A scheme to do so was devised by measuring the skin response to pairs of 585-nm dye laser pulses (250-360 microseconds each) as a function of the time interval between the two pulses, in five volunteers with port-wine stains. After a pump pulse delivering 80% of the fluence necessary for causing purpura, the fluence of a second probe pulse necessary to cause purpura was determined and was found to increase with the interval between the two pulses, in a manner consistent with thermal diffusion theory. Biopsy specimens were obtained from four of the five subjects to examine the nature and extent of vessel damage and to measure the port-wine stain vessel diameters. Using diffusion theory, the thermal relaxation time was calculated based on the measured vessel diameters. These calculated values are consistent with the increase in radiant exposure (fluence) of the probe pulse necessary to induce purpura for longer time delays. Two simple models for thermal relaxation of port-wine stain vessels are presented and compared with the data. The data and histologic assessment of the vessel injury strongly suggest that pulse durations for ideal laser treatment are in the 1-10-millisecond region and depend on vessel diameter. No dermatologic lasers presently used for port-wine stain treatment operate in this pulse width domain.